Authors: Beth Nugent
It is cocktail hour and my parents sit happily at the table, planning the first cocktail party they will give in this new town. When I consider how quickly my parents make new friends, and compare it with my own slow, predictable progress, I think I may be adopted. But, like mine, their friends in each new city resemble exactly those from the last: nervous, bony women with black dresses and long fingernails, and faceless men under thinning hair, in white shirts and dark jackets and ties. It is almost as though they accompany us, a crowd of cocktail guests creeping in a black cloud that follows us down the highway. Within weeks of a move, my parents are attending and hosting cocktail parties, and tonight they smile in the golden light as the world slows to the even motions of my father rising and sitting again, and to the quiet excited hum of their voices as they go through all the names of their new friends.
On the way to school, I tell Annie I am sick and will be going home early today, so she should not wait for me for lunch, and at lunchtime I stay in my classroom until the halls are clear. From the cafeteria door, I watch Annie move with her
tray alone to the end of a table and eat her food quietly. Her head is down and she doesn’t look at anything. I take my lunch to the other side of the room, to a table full of the kind of people who would ordinarily be my friends by now. There is space at the end, which I take, and though they ignore me, we are like an island here, surrounded by an ocean of boys and girls who know more than we do. I watch Tommy and his friends walk by Annie’s table. They stand over her, but she doesn’t look up; she slowly fills her mouth with potato chips, slowly chews them. When the boys go on, she looks up, around the room, and sees me at my new table. The bell rings and she blinks; then we rise together.
—Sally, she calls, —hey, Sally, and all the other Sallys turn their heads to the sound of their name, but I move out of the room and into the hallway, where I can’t hear her over the noise of boys and girls talking to each other.
At the end of the day, she is waiting outside my room. —Hey, she says, —didn’t you hear me?
—What? I say. —No.
—I called your name, she says. —Didn’t you see me?
—No, I say, and watch as people gather into their groups. Any one of the groups would be fine, and I look back at Annie, at her long thin arms and legs. She looks down at herself to see what I am looking at, and watches me watch the others leave. They are already drawn together in tight arrangements that won’t open very easily to admit me.
—Well, she says. —Let’s go.
—I guess I’m going to stay late, I say. —To help out, is all I can think of to explain it, but she nods and moves away. I hold my books to my chest and watch the boys she passes, to see if they turn.
On Friday I stand near a group of quiet girls who are planning something, but they take no notice of my presence and
finally they break off into smaller groups and say goodbye and wander off with their mild happiness, leaving me to go home for my parents’ party. I stand at the school door until Annie is almost all the way across the playground; then I follow her to our street.
My mother empties and fills ice trays for the party and from my window I can see Annie in her front yard. She stares at our house and finally she heads across the street. I wait several minutes for her knock, but when it doesn’t come, I open the door and find her sitting in our yard, pulling up blades of grass one by one.
—Oh, she says. —Hi. You know, your dad should mow your yard one more time before it gets cold. She brushes her hand lightly over the top of the grass.
—So, she says. —You can come over tonight if you want. My parents are coming to your party.
—I guess I’d better stay home, I say. —You know, to help out.
—We have ice cream, she says. —And cookies. We can watch anything we want.
—I have to help my mother right now, I say. —She’s making ice.
—Oh, Annie says, —okay.
I go back in my house, but she stays in the yard looking down at the grass all around her.
My parents are getting dressed for their party. My father carries my mother her drink and looks at her in the mirror as she holds an earring to her ear. Their eyes meet and quickly separate. Downstairs the living room is set with bowls of food no one ever touches at these parties: peanuts and potato chips and olives. From my mother’s window, I see Annie’s parents emerge from their house and cross the
street side by side, like two dogs on a leash. They are right on time, but at least half an hour earlier than anyone is expected; aside from that, I can tell by the way they’re dressed that this is their first cocktail party. Annie’s mother is wearing a skirt and sweater, and her father wears a jacket but no tie; their clothes are the same color as their skin, a kind of light beige, and they will stand out like little sandy spots in a sea of dark suits and dresses. Annie’s mother has had her hair done into a stiff blond bubble around her head, and she pats at it mechanically as they come up the walk. Behind them, their house looks dark; somewhere inside Annie and Tommy have the evening to themselves. When Annie’s parents knock, my mother looks toward her bedroom door and my father goes to answer.
—Jesus, my mother says. —Who would come so early? She clips her earrings on, and with a long, pink fingernail traces the line of lipstick around her mouth.
—Won’t this be fun, honey? she says to me.
By the time I follow her downstairs, more guests have arrived. Annie’s parents stand quietly by the coffee table; they hold their drinks uncomfortably and only taste at them with their tongues as they look around our house.
—You have a very lovely home, they both say, separately, to each of my parents as my mother smiles and my father gently removes their drinks from their hands to make fresh ones. I help carry them back and Annie’s father beams at me.
—Anne is a very good girl, he says to my father, who looks at him blankly, until he remembers that this is Annie’s father.
—Yes, he says, —she certainly seems to be.
—You must be very proud of her, Annie’s mother says, and my father looks around, confused, then realizes that they are talking about me.
—Yes, he says and looks at me oddly, as if it is possible that my name actually could be Anne and he has been getting it wrong all these years.
—Yes, he says again, —I suppose we are.
They smile uneasily at me and at each other, and my father cannot stop himself from reaching for the drinks he has just given them, to freshen them up. I wander around the party holding out little plates of crackers and cheese to the party guests, who look down at me and smile briefly, then go back to their conversations. When I return to the coffee table, Annie’s parents have moved to the couch, where they sit side by side, eating the peanuts and potato chips from the bowls on the table. Annie’s mother bends to look at the olives, and touches one warily with the tip of her finger, then pulls her hand back. They hold their drinks carefully, still hardly touched, and as they eat, they look up and around them at the other guests, all of whom are standing, laughing and talking to each other as though they have all been friends for years. Annie’s parents must wonder where all these people live, and why they’ve never seen them at the grocery store, or the gas station. Under the clatter of ice and glass and talk, there is music playing, something quiet and easy to listen to. A few women sway to it gently. Although there is never any real dancing to speak of, occasionally, as the party wears on, one or two couples will lean close together and move around in little circles in the corners, while their husbands and wives watch from the couch, making loud, bitter comments as my father freshens their drinks. These are usually among the last guests to leave. My mother passes Annie’s parents and smiles graciously down at them. —It’s so nice to have you here, she says to them. —I hope you’re having a good time.
Annie’s mother opens her mouth to answer, but my mother
has turned away before she’s gotten a word out. She turns to her husband, but he has filled his fist with peanuts, which he pops into his mouth one by one. She takes a sip of her drink and watches my mother talk to a man in a black suit. He takes her hand and his thumb catches on her ring.
—It’s very nice to have you in town, he says, and my mother smiles and begins to look away, but he keeps hold of her hand.
—Really, he says. —I mean it.
This gets her attention and she slowly turns her head and looks directly at him. My father is in the kitchen making drinks, and when I go in to watch him, he smiles happily at me.
—Isn’t this great? he says. —Aren’t these people great?
He brings the bottle he is pouring from to his lips and closes his eyes as he drinks. He winks at me when he puts the bottle down, then leaves with a tray full of fresh drinks.
—Sally, my mother says when I walk by her. She takes my shoulder and turns me to face the man in the black suit. —This is Mr. Wheeler.
I hold a plate of crackers out to him and he smiles nervously at me.
—Well, he says. —You fit right in, don’t you?
My mother smiles proudly. —When Sally was little, she says, —she loved our parties. She used to kiss all the guests good night.
Mr. Wheeler nods politely, but it is true: I remember shuffling from one guest to the next like a little pet, the brush of their cheeks across my lips, the smell of smoke and perfume, and the warm scent of bourbon on their breath.
My mother looks down at me with the fondness of a stranger, running her hand over my hair. —She couldn’t go to sleep without kissing them all, she says.
—Like mother like daughter, says someone behind us, and my mother’s face freezes for a moment; then she turns her smile in the direction of the voice.
My father laughs loudly at whatever jokes he overhears as he moves efficiently in and out of the kitchen, and the party glitters around me like a light I can’t quite catch as it passes on the edge of my vision. My friends who are not my friends are all together at someone’s house, making popcorn and watching movies on television. Later, perhaps, they will gather their courage and wander in a small crowd to the pizza shop where the other children all meet. The bravest among them will insist on going, and the others will follow reluctantly; perhaps, on the way there, they will be attracted by an ice-cream store, or a movie, and stop, relieved to find this distraction; or perhaps they will go and sit in a corner booth, glancing around over their pizza, wondering what is happening. And across the street, Annie sits in a little circle of darkness in front of the television, listening to the hum of Tommy’s nerves as he turns the pages of his comic books. When the phone rings, my mother turns from her conversation with Mr. Wheeler and my father looks up from his tray of drinks. I answer it for them.
—Oh, Annie says, —I was just wondering if you changed your mind.
She waits. —You know. About coming over.
Her voice is high and strained.
—I can’t, I say. —I have to help.
—Oh, she says, but she does not hang up. I think I can hear, from the basement below her, the mean laughter of boys as they watch television.
When I hang up and my mother asks me who it was, I say it was no one.
Before I am grown, I will live in a dozen more houses, and attend a dozen more schools; soon Annie will be just another
face without a name, and I will forget whatever it is that is happening to her right now, behind the dark windows of her house.
I leave the party without kissing the guests good night. From the top of the stairs I turn to watch them. My mother smiles directly into the eyes of a man she has just met, while my father entertains the man’s wife in the kitchen. Around them move people without faces, speaking in high, excited voices, and in the middle of the room Annie’s parents sit together, staring around them with big haunted eyes. I try to guess what my mother is thinking as she smiles at the man, if in her mind she is groping for a five-letter word for frying pan or mousetrap.
From my bedroom window, I watch Annie’s house, dark except for the kitchen and the flickering glow of the television downstairs. I turn out my light just as Annie comes out of her house. She sees me and waves me over, but I pull back out of sight. I cannot cross the street to meet her; downstairs is a room full of people I don’t know, and ahead of me there are rooms full of people I don’t know. Under my skin the nerves are moving like tiny people trying to get out. I watch Annie walk around her yard, collecting papers, twigs, early leaves, which she piles in ragged mounds against the brick wall of her house. She turns to me again, and in the darkness her face is a pale little moon, lit by the bleak shining faith that she can somehow cause the dry bricks to burn and save herself in the flames of a fire that can never catch.
The car is long and black, with fake wooden sides that are peeling away from the body in thin metallic strips. It honks even before it stops in front of our house, but my parents pay no attention.
The car continues to honk, and finally my mother lifts her head from her book.
—Jesus, she says, then walks to the bathroom and locks the door behind her. My father rises from his chair, dragging his eyes away from the baseball game on the television.
—Helen, he says sharply to her, then notices me by the window. He smiles grimly and wipes his hands across the front of his shirt.
Francine launches herself from the car first; she is splendid in hot pink, blue designer jeans, and breasts, which are clearly distinguishable from the soft bulk of her back and shoulders and stomach. They are a new addition since her last visit here two summers ago when she and I lay on the hot pavement at the pool spreading our hands flat across our chests, searching for even the slightest swelling in the flat bony shapes of our bodies.
This summer we will not go to the pool, since I am still recovering from an unusually severe and inexplicably contracted bout of hepatitis that kept me out of school for the first half of the year. I know that Francine will be uneasy about my hepatitis; she will wonder where I got it and how, but she will decide immediately, looking me over, that its origin could not have been in anything sexual. For the first few nights, I know she will lie awake in the bed across from mine and listen to my breathing, trying to detect germs issuing from my mouth in a thin stream, heading relentlessly toward her. There will be some satisfaction for me in Francine’s first few sleepless nights.